Minding the Gap: Partnering Across Sectors for Democracy
By Bernie Ronan and George L. Mehaffy
Volume 16, Number 1
With the 2012 London Olympics on full display this summer, we were reminded of a characteristically British phrase. While traveling by tube or rail in the United Kingdom, one often sees signs reminding riders to “mind the gap,” or note the space between the rail car and the platform. As we reflect on the beginnings of our two civic engagement projects—the American Democracy Project (ADP) in 2003 and The Democracy Commitment (TDC) in 2011—and our resulting partnership connecting the four- and two-year sectors of higher education, we are struck by this phrase’s relevance to our work. Both ADP and TDC were born out of “gaps” that higher education practitioners need to mind: between our aspirations and our practices, between the democracy we have and the democracy we seek. Since the United States’ founding as a democratic republic, the mission of American higher education has included educating students for citizenship, for active engagement in their communities. The gap between the ideals expressed in this mission and the lived realities of our institutions and communities has both alarmed us and challenged us in designing our projects to close these gaps.
Origins and Aims
The American Democracy Project (ADP) began in 2003 during a difficult period for the United States. Following the terrorist attacks of 2001, a tremendous sense of common resolve unified the American people. But after wars began in Iraq and Afghanistan, that sense of unity gave way to increasingly bitter partisan divides. With deep gaps evident between the rhetoric and realities of our democracy and an enormous sense that the country was moving in the wrong direction, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) partnered with The New York Times to launch ADP, an initiative focused specifically on the 415 public colleges and universities that are AASCU members. While provosts have always been key participants, we decided to require campuses who wished to join to make a presidential request, thus securing institutional commitment to the project. To operationalize that commitment across the institution, we asked each provost to appoint a campus coordinator who would play a key role in linking various activities, initiatives, and assessments focused on civic learning outcomes for students.
In 2011, The Democracy Commitment (TDC) confronted equally challenging gaps in the civic landscape. With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continuing and divisiveness and partisanship growing, the United States seemed unable to address some of its most pressing public problems. Community college students, like many Americans, were increasingly marginalized and alienated from the political institutions on which their communities depended. Across higher education and at community colleges in particular, the national focus on workforce preparation was opening another gap between a contemporary view of education as job training and a historic vision of education as preparation for civic life. Seeing these gaps widening, the two of us collaborated with Brian Murphy (president of De Anza College and a former faculty member at AASCU member San Francisco State University, where he helped form ADP), to create a project that would mirror for community colleges what ADP had done for state colleges. As in ADP, we decided that colleges would join TDC through their president or chancellor, who would commit to providing every student with an education in democracy by appointing a campus coordinator, offering staff development, implementing civic programs, and collaborating with national partners and other colleges in the national network. Each college would also agree to complete a “civic inventory” and to participate in an annual meeting held in partnership with ADP.
Thus ADP and TDC grew out of a shared context of frustration and despair as well as a shared commitment to education and action. We forged a partnership from this shared context and commitment so that we could learn from one another and build richer, more creative, and—most importantly—more intentional programs together. Too often, marvelous civic engagement projects are disconnected from the core purposes of the institution and operate in isolation, limiting their impact and their capacity to reach significant scale. By focusing on institutional intentionality, we aim over time to move beyond the model of multiple but unrelated individual programs. We thereby hope to ensure that every student at an ADP or TDC institution has an education for democracy and is equipped with the knowledge, skills, and attitudes necessary for informed, engaged citizenship.
ADP and TDC see our institutions as “stewards of place,” a term coined by AASCU in 2002. The phrase captures the fact that our state colleges and community colleges are committed to and responsible for the communities in which they are based, from which their students come and to which they return each day. We aim to revitalize democracy in our communities. To this end, our projects have conceived of civic work broadly. ADP and TDC support volunteerism and service learning, to be sure, but we are also committed to the full range of civic work—including democratic practice, with all its political (and therefore controversial) elements. Democracy, after all, is about conflict and compromise, and our students need opportunities to hone these skills. We are likewise concerned about diversity, both the diversity of institutional types and programs and, more importantly, the racial, ethnic, class, and gender diversity that characterizes our students. We seek to engage the issues of social justice and equity that are embodied in our students’ lives. Finally, we are mutually committed to grounded work, not just theoretical discussions. While our work is constantly informed by academic research, our focus is on praxis: “boots on the ground” civic work on our campuses and in our communities. Our commitment to student learning outcomes, which has led to a collaborative focus on civic assessment tools, is one illustration of this focus on students.
A Robust Partnership
We began our partnership over four years ago at ADP’s 2008 Annual Meeting in Baltimore, where we discussed how to launch a project patterned after ADP’s work with state colleges and universities but reflecting the distinctive mission and realities of community colleges. The following year, at the 2009 ADP Annual Meeting in Providence, a dozen representatives from community colleges and partner organizations met to discuss initial formation. The “rich soil” of the ADP Annual Meeting nurtured our planning, and we held our first joint meeting in June 2011 in Orlando, with around thirty-five participants from numerous community colleges presenting their projects and sharing insights and experiences with each other and with ADP colleagues. By the time we formally launched TDC in November 2011, the partnership with ADP had been seamlessly woven into the new community college initiative.
Our second joint annual meeting, held in 2012 in San Antonio, provided programmatic opportunities for collaboration and campus action (see sidebar). ADP’s initiatives gave community college initiators a rich menu of civic practices to replicate and implement, as well as an array of national programs to join. To this programmatic palette, community colleges added their own examples of robust local organizing endeavors and engaged student participation, represented at the conference through student-led presentations. The variety and depth of offerings at the Annual Meeting has increased dramatically as a result of our collaboration. We will hold our next annual meeting on June 6–8, 2013, in Denver; more information can be found on our websites.
TDC cemented the partnership by housing its national coordinator at the AASCU offices in Washington, DC. AASCU’s generosity and vision in hosting the TDC coordinator have broken down traditional fences dividing higher education sectors and provided access to resources and infrastructure that were essential as TDC launched its national project. The co-location of project leadership has proved immensely beneficial to both projects, facilitating strategizing and operational implementation. Moreover, the partnership between state colleges and community colleges working together to support students’ civic learning and democratic engagement provides a novel, and arguably transformational, symbol of inter-sector collaboration to the rest of American higher education.
Bridging Multiple Gaps
The future of our partnership lies in targeting another gap that we must mind, the one that exists between our two sectors of higher education. The compelling reality is that roughly 50 percent of graduates from AASCU institutions have transferred from local community colleges to complete their bachelor’s degrees. Although our institutions share these students, our respective sectors have operated far too often as discrete silos without coherently linked programs. In TDC and ADP’s common vision of the future, our institutions will forge partnerships on behalf of our shared students and shared communities through civic engagement initiatives and democratic practice. We envision community-based partnerships between state colleges and community colleges in which faculty work across institutional boundaries to build seamless curricular, cocurricular, and extracurricular opportunities for students.
Imagine faculty working collaboratively to articulate courses between lower and upper divisions that enable students to develop their civic skills continuously as they move through their associate’s degree courses and into their bachelor’s degree requirements. Imagine civic engagement experiences where students pursue lasting relationships with nonprofits and educational partners in their communities as they move through their academic careers, from community college to state college. Imagine communities where students are actively engaged in civic life, addressing local policy issues in a sustained and purposeful way throughout their degree programs and then pursuing long-term employment or civic engagement in their cities and towns. Some of our member colleges, such as Heartland Community College (HCC) and Illinois State University (ISU), are already building such partnerships. In an intentional effort to create seamless opportunities for students to develop their political and civic engagement skills when transitioning from HCC to ISU, the two institutions began collaborating on voter education drives and convening forums on compelling political issues. They have now connected their curricula, with a new curriculum sequence in civic engagement at HCC that articulates directly into ISU’s new minor in civic engagement and responsibility. ADP and TDC aim to foster similar collaborations between their schools across the country.
As public institutions of higher education, TDC and ADP schools share a historic mission rooted in the work of democracy. Whether community colleges or state colleges and universities, our institutions are resolutely committed to preparing students for lives of democratic citizenship. This resolve entails minding the gaps between our common mission and the challenging realities we face in our democracy and in our communities, as well as the gaps between our respective sectors of higher education. Our new partnership is already proving invaluable in our pursuit of this shared mission, for the lasting benefit of our students and our communities.
|ADP/TDC Civic InitiativesThe American Democracy Project, The Democracy Commitment, and their member institutions offer an array of programs along a continuum from service learning to political advocacy and civic action. Selected examples include
Bernie Ronan is associate vice chancellor for Public Affairs for the Maricopa Community Colleges and George L. Mehaffy is vice president for Academic Leadership and Change at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) .